Book Recommendations in the Time of Self Quarantine


Four airlines, two concert venues, my favorite sneaker company, my alma mater, and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society have all emailed me this week. They want me to know that they’re committed to keeping their customers and the public at large as safe as possible. Their tone is mostly impersonal, but their message is, unquestionably, a good one. I’ve also received an email from one of my favorite bookstores. This one feels personal.

In order to keep customers and employees from congregating within the store, they’ve closed their sales floor until further notice. They will, however, still be fulfilling all mail orders. They’re doing the right thing, of course, but unfortunately like so many other small businesses, the cost of doing the right thing in this case is an economic gut-punch that’s going to be felt for a long time. Soon after reading and sharing this email, a friend of mine has ordered eight books he’s been wanting to read, and I’ve picked up a few that I’ve had on my list as well.

With so much uncertainty circulating right now, most of us likely are having to be a little more thoughtful as to how and where we’re spending our money, but in doing so, it’s important to consider where the dollars that we do spend will go the farthest. Among the most encouraging things I’ve witnessed so far during the COVID-19 outbreak has been people’s willingness to support the local businesses that are going to need it the most in the coming months.

With that in mind, if you do choose to balance some of your binge watching with a book or two, here are a handful of titles that won’t bog you down and should serve as welcome escapes in the age of social distancing. Oh, and if you’d like to purchase these or any other actual, paper books, maybe take a moment to see if there’s a local bookseller who is still fulfilling orders. One book could go a long way.

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler (Alfred A. Knopf, 1939)
Let this serve as a recommendation of the entire hard-boiled genre. If you have a favorite crime writer, from Dashiell Hammett to Dennis Lehane, Agatha Christie to James Ellroy - now is the time to pick your poison. Few stories are as fun to disappear into as those involving double crosses, blackmail, and danger lurking in every shadow. From the start, The Big Sleep delivers just that. In the pages of his first novel, Chandler introduces the world to Philip Marlowe, the archetype of intrepid investigators for the next hundred years. Marlowe navigates old LA to try to clear up the gambling debts of the wealthy General Sherwood’s daughter, Carmen. With assistance from Carmen’s sister, Vivian, Marlow and the reader quickly realize how little they grasp of what they thought was happening around them. You were going to put on all three seasons of True Detective, right? Try this instead.

Travels with Charlie in Search of America - John Steinbeck (Viking Publishing, 1962)
There are entire swaths of America that are so perfectly captured in the works of John Steinbeck that if feels almost as if he had written them into existence. In Travels with Charlie we get to ride shotgun as the author reacquaints himself with the country he’d spent a career documenting in ink. Fine, technically Charlie, Steinbeck’s standard poodle rides shotgun, but at least we’re in the truck. After 25 years mostly at home on Long Island, Steinbeck and Charlie set out to hear “the speech of America” spoken directly from its people. At points shockingly prescient, Steinbeck’s journey finds a nation struggling with much of the same inequality and tension that still exists today, but more so than anything else, his trip brings him face to face the kindness and character of its people. Ultimately, Travels with Charlie provides exactly the kind of optimism we need right now, and if you can’t strike out on that road trip you’ve been planning, let one of America’s greatest writers – and his dog – do it for you.

Seinfeldia - Jennifer Armstrong (Simon and Schuster, 2016)
With so much happening right now, it feels like the perfect time for nothing. Armstrong gives both the die-hard Seinfeld fan as well as the casual pop culture-junkie plenty to mull in this endlessly entertaining book. Armstrong coins “Seinfeldia” as that “special dimension of existence somewhere between the show itself and real life,” and no sitcom of the last half-century seems to have created that space so well. Twenty years after its final episode, Seinfeld has spawned show-themed bar trivia, the definitive guidelines to chip-dipping, and enough wall art to paper the entirety of Apartment 5A. Seinfeldia is both a carefully researched history of one of America’s great comedies of any genre as well as a fascinating look into the impact the show has had on our collective frame of reference to this day.

The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson (Simon and Schuster, 1998)
If you find yourself starting to go a little stir crazy and are looking for an author that knows what it means to go off the rails, Thompson is that author…and then some. His earliest work of fiction, The Rum Diary is a glimpse into what might have been had Thompson played it straight as a novelist (as straight as he could, of course). There’s no fear, no loathing, no drug-fueled bombing-runs into the heart of the American Dream here; what we do get is Puerto Rico in the 50’s, sunbaked and rum-soaked, serving as the backdrop for a well-crafted story with elements of romance, corruption, and enough booze to drown a giraffe. At times semi-autobiographical, The Rum Diary follows journalist Paul Kemp in his pursuit of both the beautiful Chenault as well as the scoop on a crooked real-estate deal. With the help of alcohol, the local authorities, and Kemp’s own employer, however, Thompson soon lets the story unravel as only he can with the reader joyously along for the ride.